Looking in the Wrong Direction: An Interview with Jordan Stump

By Katherine Sanders

Jordan Stump has translated many authors from the French including Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, and Honoré de Balzac. His translation of The Jardin des Plantes by Claude Simon won the 2001 French-American Foundation translation prize, and he was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et des Lettres in 2006. His latest translation is a short story collection by Prix Goncourt winner Marie NDiaye, All My Friends. I had the chance to ask him a few questions about translation in general and about his latest work.

Katherine Sanders: Let’s start with a question you probably get a lot: how do you decide what to translate?

Jordan Stump: I have a taste for new writing; for writers who are largely unknown or misunderstood in this country. And I like a writing that’s a little bit off, a little bit adventurous, that takes chances. Sometimes I tell myself it would be nice to translate a book that’s just plain old ordinary language so I wouldn’t have to struggle as I sometimes do, but I don’t seem to get excited about books like that. I like books that give me an oddity to work with.

KS: So when you’re translating a particular author, what are some of the things you consider about taking that author’s style from French to English?

JS: That’s really hard. It’s a question that doesn’t really have an answer. The only thing you can do is try a draft, see what it looks like and ask yourself, “does it do what the original does?” If it doesn’t, think more about what the original does and then go back to your translation and see what you can do to make it more like that. And then look at it again and ask, “does it do what the original does?”

KS: That seems important—the constant back-and-forth quality of going through different drafts.

JS: Absolutely, it’s vital. And also in revision, I try to revise in as many ways as I possibly can. I discovered it’s really useful to revise the text one page at a time in random order, and to revise backward as well. Just try to break your familiarity with the text in as many ways as you can so you can see things that might have slipped by you otherwise.

KS: I want to talk about your latest translation, All My Friends by Marie NDiaye. It’s a collection of short stories. Each narrator has an obsessive quality, and that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. What were you thinking about in terms of capturing and re-creating these distinct voices?

JS: It’s a funny thing with NDiaye, because they are distinctive voices, but at the same time there is a very clear NDiaye voice that is very powerful and impossible to erase; so it always comes out in these characters as well—even when it’s them thinking or speaking. Certainly you have to be continually asking yourself, “why is this particular narrator of this particular story saying this particular word here?” That is the difficulty in translating short stories; you have to think of what you’re doing with respect to the author’s style, but at the same time every story has to be a little world that works coherently within itself.

KS: So you’re thinking about both the character and NDiaye’s voices at the same time?

JS: That’s right. For example, the narrator of “All My Friends” is an asshole man and the woman who we see in “Brulard’s Day” is a panicking woman. Those are two distinct voices. He is very stuffy; she is very distraught. Yet at the same time they’re linked by the density of NDiaye’s authorial voice.

KS: So as a follow-up to that, was there a particular voice or section that was the most difficult for you to translate? How did you work through that?

JS: I think that the hardest part for me was translating the very last story, “Revelation.” NDiaye works on a broad scale—her stories unfold slowly. A very short story like that is an oddity in her writing. I found it a little daunting because everything has to fit together in a way it doesn’t necessarily have to in a larger story. So with that story I simply found it difficult to make it convincing in my own mind.

Apart from that, the perennial difficulty with translating writers like NDiaye or Eric Chevillard, who I also translate, is that they tend to write in a style that is pretty accessible to French people, with very long, complex, even run-on, sentences. Something at the end of the sentence can refer back to something earlier in the sentence because you know that the feminine singular pronoun has to be referring back to a feminine singular noun, etc. You can’t really get away with that in English. So the difficulty is respecting the author’s individual style while still respecting the differences between what is considered acceptable or only-slightly-excessive in English, and what is considered acceptable or only-slightly-excessive in French. That’s hard—reconciling what the author does with what the reader can tolerate.

KS: Do you find that there are times when the French is unclear, so the English necessarily has to be unclear to preserve some of that oddity or strangeness?

JS: That’s right. The translator’s tendency is always to try to show, “Look, I understand what this means!” and to clarify things. I think that’s a mistake. Confusion, especially with NDiaye, is an important part of the experience of reading. It would be a shame to lose that.

KS: Was NDiaye involved in the translation process?

JS: I always try to get the authors involved because I like talking to them. Particularly with her, I was very eager to get in touch with her. So as I always do, I wrote her some questions about a few things I had uncertainties about. She was helpful—always helpful and interested. Often writers can’t answer my questions because I’m asking questions having to do with things they themselves prefer to leave ambiguous.

KS: You’ve translated a wide range of authors—some very well-known authors like Balzac and Verne as well as some largely unknown authors, at least to English-speaking audiences—so is there a difference for you in the way you approach a very well-known text versus a largely unknown text?

JS: Actually, I don’t think there is. I think it’s possible to simply look at the work and not think about the way the author is seen. Balzac in particular is so dense and so variable that I think it’s entirely safe to say that Americans know him far less well than they imagine. If I choose a text it’s because there is something I would like to show people that I don’t think they’ve seen. Whether it’s by a very famous writer like Verne—whose Mysterious Island was egregiously badly translated before, so people really hadn’t seen it—or by somebody they would never have heard of, in any case there’s something that they haven’t seen that I want to show them and it doesn’t really matter who wrote it.

KS: I was very interested in your own book The Other Book: Bewilderments of Fiction, in the way you looked at not only the manuscript of the novel Le Chiendent by Raymond Queneau, but also a translation and a critical edition—essentially all the text around the text. One of the reasons you said you chose this book as a case study was the way it interestingly “looks in the wrong direction,” to use your words. I’m curious about taking that theme and bringing it to your translations. Do you find yourself, as you translate, looking in the wrong direction—in a sense, going off the beaten path or asking questions that no one is asking?

JS: What a wonderful question. Yeah, I think first, that is a scholar’s job, to look in the direction other people aren’t looking and to see things that other people don’t see. That’s pretentious, but at least you should ask questions that other people may not be asking. That’s what every good scholar does. I think that’s exactly what a translator does. And that works on several levels. First simply on the level of the book that you choose; you really have to be looking for something that changes the shape of the canon of translated literature in some way. I have no interest—although I’ve done it—in re-translation. I think, a fifteenth translation of Madame Bovary, who cares? It’s actually been quite well done already and changing a word or two here or there doesn’t really make a difference. The translator should be looking somewhere other than in the direction everybody else is looking.

The same is true simply at the level of rendering the words. One can look at the words and say, “I see what this means; it goes naturally into English and I’m just going to do that.” But I remember something my wife told me: she studied Classics, and said that classicists translating from Latin, for instance, make it a point of pride to avoid using cognates. You have to find some other way of saying it, even if there is an obvious choice. I thought that was a wonderful idea. So that’s what I try to do more and more—to look for the word that is not the word that naturally springs to mind. There are writers for whom that’s important, like NDiaye, and there are others for whom that’s less important. But you want to avoid the obvious choice in the books that you translate and you want to avoid the obvious choice in the words that you write.

KS: That’s really interesting. We could go on and on, but is there anything else you would like to say?

JS: As a translator I am always delighted to see the degree of interest in literature in translation. That really seems to be picking up speed nowadays. We have such a long tradition of being the world’s not only hegemonic language, but hegemonic culture and hegemonic literature. It’s so long been taken for granted by people of the English-speaking world that real literature is written only in English. There are some exceptions, of course—you know, Kafka, Tolstoy, etc.—but on the whole I think a lot of people feel deep down that real literature, particularly contemporary literature, is written only in English. I’m so glad to see that that refusal to take an interest in the outside world is cracking up.


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